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Just Don’t Call It Privacy

September 23, 2018

What do you call it when employers use Facebook’s advertising platform to show certain job ads only to men or just to people between the ages of 25 and 36?

How about when Google collects the whereabouts of its users — even after they deliberately turn off location history?

Or when AT&T shares its mobile customers’ locations with data brokers?

American policymakers often refer to such issues using a default umbrella term: privacy. That at least is the framework for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing scheduled for this Wednesday titled “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy.”

After a spate of recent data-mining scandals — including Russian-sponsored ads on Facebook aimed at influencing African-Americans not to vote — some members of Congress are now rallying behind the idea of a new federal consumer privacy law.
At this week’s hearing, legislators plan to ask executives from Amazon, AT&T, Google, Twitter and other companies about their privacy policies. Senators also want the companies to explain “what Congress can do to promote clear privacy expectations without hurting innovation,” according to the hearing notice.

There’s just one flaw with this setup.

In a surveillance economy where companies track, analyze and capitalize on our clicks, the issue at hand isn’t privacy. The problem is unfettered data exploitation and its potential deleterious consequences — among them, unequal consumer treatment, financial fraud, identity theft, manipulative marketing and discrimination.
In other words, asking companies whose business models revolve around exploiting data-based consumer-influence techniques to explain their privacy policies seems about as useful as asking sharks to hold forth on veganism.

“Congress should not be examining privacy policies,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a prominent digital rights nonprofit, told me last week. “They should be examining business practices. They should be examining how these firms collect and use the personal data of customers, of internet users.”

The Senate Commerce hearing, however, doesn’t seem designed to investigate commercial surveillance and influence practices that might merit government oversight.
For one thing, only industry executives are currently set to testify. And most of them are lawyers and policy experts, not engineers versed in the mechanics of data-mining algorithms.

Companies are sending their “policy and law folks to Washington to make the government go away — not the engineering folks who actually understand these systems in depth and can talk through alternatives,” Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, told me.

That may be because Congress is under industry pressure.

California recently passed a new privacy law that would give Californians some power over the data companies’ hold on them. Industry groups hope to defang that statute by pushing Congress to pass federal privacy legislation that would overrule state laws. The industry-stacked Senate hearing lineup seems designed to pave the way for that, said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee, said the group planned future hearings that would include other voices, such as consumer groups. But “for the first hearing,” Mr. Hill said, “the committee is bringing in companies most consumers recognize to make the discussion about privacy more relatable.”

What is at stake here isn’t privacy, the right not to be observed. It’s how companies can use our data to invisibly shunt us in directions that may benefit them more than us.

Many consumers know that digital services and ad tech companies track and analyze their activities. And they accept, or are at least resigned to, data-mining in exchange for conveniences like customized newsfeeds and ads.

But revelations about Russian election interference and Cambridge Analytica, the voter-profiling company that obtained information on millions of Facebook users, have made it clear that data-driven influence campaigns can scale quickly and cause societal harm.
And that leads to a larger question: Do we want a future in which companies can freely parse the photos we posted last year, or the location data from the fitness apps we used last week, to infer whether we are stressed or depressed or financially strapped or emotionally vulnerable — and take advantage of that?

“Say I sound sick when I am talking to Alexa, maybe they would show me medicine as a suggestion on Amazon,” said Franziska Roesner, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Washington, using a hypothetical example of Amazon’s voice assistant. “What happens when the inferences are wrong?”

(Amazon said it does not use Alexa data for product recommendations or marketing.)

It’s tough to answer those questions right now when there are often gulfs between the innocuous ways companies explain their data practices to consumers and the details they divulge about their targeting techniques to advertisers.

AT&T’s privacy policy says the mobile phone and cable TV provider may use third-party data to categorize subscribers, without using their real names, into interest segments and show them ads accordingly. That sounds reasonable enough.

Here’s what it means in practice: AT&T can find out which subscribers have indigestion — or at least which ones bought over-the-counter drugs to treat it.

In a case study for advertisers, AT&T describes segmenting DirecTV subscribers who bought antacids and then targeting them with ads for the medication. The firm was also able to track those subscribers’ spending. Households who saw the antacid ads spent 725 percent more on the drugs than a national audience.

Michael Balmoris, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company’s privacy policy was “transparent and precise, and describes in plain language how we use information and the choices we give customers.”
But consumer advocates hope senators will press AT&T, Amazon and other companies this week to provide more details on their consumer-profiling practices. “We want an inside look on the analytics and how they’re categorizing, ranking, rating and scoring us,” Professor Citron said.

Given the increased public scrutiny, some companies are tweaking their tactics.

AT&T recently said it would stop sharing users’ location details with data brokers. Facebook said it had stopped allowing advertisers to use sensitive categories, like race or religion, to exclude people from seeing ads. Google created a feature for users to download masses of their data, including a list of all the sites Google has tracked them on.

Government officials in Europe are not waiting for companies to police themselves. In May, the European Union introduced a tough new data protection law that curbs some data-mining.

It requires companies to obtain explicit permission from European users before collecting personal details on sensitive subjects like their religion, health or sex life. It gives European users the right to see all of the information companies hold about them — including any algorithmic scores or inferences.

European users also have the right not to be subject to completely automated decisions that could significantly affect them, such as credit algorithms that use a person’s data to decide whether a bank should grant him or her a loan.

Of course, privacy still matters. But Congress now has an opportunity to press companies like Amazon on broader public issues. It could require them to disclose exactly how they use data extracted from consumers. And it could force companies to give consumers some rights over that data.

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Federal Agency Begins Inquiry Into Auto Lenders’ Use of GPS Tracking

February 23, 2017

Auto loans to Americans with poor credit have been booming, and many finance companies, credit unions and auto dealers are using technologies to track the location of borrowers’ vehicles in case they need to repossess them.
Such surveillance, lenders say, allows them to extend loans to more low-income Americans, knowing that they can easily locate the car. Lenders are also installing devices that enable them to remotely disable a car’s ignition after a borrower misses a payment.

Now, federal regulators are investigating whether these devices unfairly violate a borrower’s privacy.

The auto lender Credit Acceptance Corp. said this month in a securities filing that it had received a civil investigative demand from the Federal Trade Commission asking for its “policies, practices and procedures” related to so-called GPS starter interrupter devices, which are used to disable an ignition.

Industry lawyers say the action is part of a broader inquiry by the agency into tracking technologies used in the subprime auto lending market.

The regulatory scrutiny over the GPS starter interrupter devices comes as cracks are starting to appear in the auto loan market. The percentage of auto loans that were at least 90 days delinquent increased to 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter from 3.6 percent in the third quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York

The auto finance industry says that without the devices, many low-income Americans would not be able to buy cars that they need to get to work.

But some find it unsettling that the technology gives lenders so much control over borrowers.

“They don’t need to know what we are doing — when we go out to eat, when we go on vacation,” said Elias Sanchez, a forklift operator in Austin, Texas. “We want our privacy.” His auto dealer didn’t tell him that a GPS tracking device had been installed in his 2005 Ford SUV, he said.

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Internet Tracking Has Moved Beyond Cookies

September 6, 2016

Chances are you know you’re being tracked online. Most of us are at the point where we’re not surprised when an ad for something we searched for on one site appears on the next site we visit. We know that many pages (yes, this one you’re reading, too) drop cookies and other scripts into our browser to keep tabs on our activity and sell us stuff.
A new survey from a group of Princeton researchers of one million websites sheds some light on the cutting-edge tricks being used to follow your digital trail. Rather than placing a tracker on your browser, many sites are now “fingerprinting” — using information about your computer such as battery status or browser window size to identify your presence.
Arvind Narayanan, one of the authors of the Princeton study, discusses his research, the latest in online tracking and what you (and our lawmakers) can do to counter the trackers.
Read a partial transcript below. Here are a few of the tools and studies we mentioned in the show:
• Arvind Narayanan and Steven Englehardt’s full paper (PDF)
• Ghostery, an online tool that alerts you to the trackers on the website you’re visiting
• Panopticlick from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which analyzes how well your browser is protected from tracking
How fingerprinting works
Arvind Narayanan: In the ad tech industry, cookies are gradually being shunted in favor of fingerprinting. The reason that fingerprinting is so effective is that even if you have a device that you think is identical to the device of the person sitting next to you, there are going to be a number of differences in the behavior of your browser. The set of fonts installed on your browser could be different. The precise version number of the browser could be different. Your battery status could be different from that of the person next to you, or anybody else in the world. And it turns out that if you put all of these pieces of information together, a unique or nearly unique picture of the behavior of your device emerges that’s going to be relatively stable over time. And that enables your companies to recognize you when you come back.
Jody Avirgan: But how does it enable that? My actual finger’s fingerprint doesn’t change from today to tomorrow. But my computer’s battery status can change. So how do they know it’s still you?
Narayanan: The battery status is actually the only exception to that general principle. And that’s the reason why we’re still figuring out how that works. [Editor’s note: Earlier in the interview, Narayanan had mentioned that the rate at which your battery depletes might be an identifier.] But let’s say you’ve got 41 fonts installed on your browser today. You come back in a week, maybe you have 43 fonts installed. But 41 of those are going to be the same as what they saw a week ago. And it changes slowly enough that statistically you can have a high degree of confidence. In the industry they call these things statistical IDs. It’s not as certain as putting a cookie on your browser, but you can derive a very high degree of confidence.
Tracking’s chilling effect
Narayanan: The reason that this is really important, and perhaps the primary thing that motivates me to do this research, is this world of pervasive surveillance that we’re entering into — and I’m going to use that word surveillance very deliberately, because it is surveillance. Everything that we look at online and click on is getting stored in a database somewhere. And it’s being data-mined and various [decisions] are being based on that. Targeted advertising is a relatively innocuous example, but there are a variety of other things that can and do happen.
There is research that shows that when people know they are being tracked and surveilled, they change their behavior. We lose our intellectual freedom. A variety of things we consider important for our civil liberties — say, marriage equality — are things that would have been stigmatized just a few decades ago. And the reason we got to the point where it was possible to talk about it and try to change our norms and rules is because people had the freedom to talk to each other privately. To find out that there are like-minded people. As we move to a digital world, are we losing those abilities or freedoms? That is the thing to me that is the question. That’s the most worrisome thing about online tracking. It’s not so much the advertising.

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